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March 1, 2011 3:14 PM

Norton Rose: Taking On the World

Posted by Chris Johnson


From the March 2011 Issue of The American Lawyer

Not too long ago, Norton Rose looked like an also-ran.

The London-based firm, known for its financial institutions practice, stumbled badly after its offices were bombed—twice—by Irish Republican Army terrorists in the early 1990s. It jumped belatedly on the global bandwagon, establishing a network of European offices that did not turn a profit for half a decade. By the early 2000s, key partners were running for the exits. The Magic Circle, formerly Norton Rose's closest rivals, had pulled far ahead.

That was then.

In 2009 a resurgent Norton Rose stunned the market by announcing that it would combine with Deacons, one of Australia's largest firms. Just over 12 months later, it garnered more headlines by pulling off a three-way tie-up with Canada's Ogilvy Renault and South Africa's Deneys Reitz. The moves have catapulted Norton Rose onto the global stage. Although the firms will retain separate profit pools, when the most recent union takes effect in June, the combined Norton Rose Group will rank as one of the world's top ten law firms by head count, boasting more than 2,500 lawyers in 38 offices worldwide and gross revenues of more than $1 billion.

The transformation of Norton Rose is due in large part to CEO Peter Martyr, first elected in 2002 to a rule that has become near-absolute. Determined to restore the firm to its former glory, Martyr masterminded the construction of spectacular new offices in London and implemented an industry-focused practice structure that has been copied by many firms in subsequent years. His biggest legacy is likely to be the firm's ambitious new international reach. But his greatest challenge is whether this global strategy can reverse a long trend of lagging profits.

In his first speech to the partnership in 2002, Martyr outlined a vision for Norton Rose to be one of the select global firms that he predicts will ultimately dominate the market as it consolidates. He hasn't changed his mind since then. "We believe there will be around 20 global firms doing the sort of work we do and aspire to do," Martyr says now. "We want to be at that table of global elite firms in a significant way, but we realized that it would be mathematically impossible to achieve the required growth organically, so [we] accepted that we needed to merge."

Martyr used to have a reputation as a difficult person to interview, renowned for a prickly side that his playful wit and plummy voice couldn't quite disguise. But on a gloomy Friday afternoon in December, as the lanky six-footer sits down and tucks into some Christmas cake baked by the firm's chef, Martyr seems cheerful, personable, and surprisingly relaxed for someone facing the gargantuan task of integrating four firms across 16 time zones. Perhaps it's a result of now having positive news to tell, which does make speaking to the press considerably easier, but as he recounts his career as CEO, his zeal for the firm at which he has spent his entire career is striking. Martyr is, unquestionably, Norton Rose through and through. "His blood is only red because it's the color of our logo," jokes one senior equity partner.

His sights are now set on finding an American merger partner—a deal some Norton Rose partners expect to happen within the next 12 months.

Click here to continue reading.


Photo: Martin Beddall

Contact Chris Johnson at [email protected]


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